Over the last few years people have been talking a lot about the geisha varietal.
This has especially been the case in the last five years, where Geisha has exploded on the competition scene due to its distinctive flavour characteristics and tactile qualities that work well on competition score sheets. However, with the success of people using these coffees in competition has come an anti-culture of those opposing their use, presenting Geisha as ‘elitist’, ‘over-rated’ and even ‘unsustainable for business’.
This article isn’t intended to undermine the flavour preferences people have for other coffees, rather to present Geisha in the light I believe it deserves.
Regarding the implications of price Geisha has been well documented as being an expensive varietal. This has often built around supply and demand as well as increased costs of production and care. A high-quality Panamanian Geisha will often sell for ten or more times the price of other coffees and as a result, has been seen as unsustainable for roasting companies and cafes alike. More often than not, the price point of geisha makes it simply inaccessible to a lot of businesses and their consumers.
People in very price sensitive markets may struggle to sell these coffees in this current time but I believe it’s not the fault of the varietal or the price, rather the fit for culture and also the delivery and execution of the product.
Where high prices can benefit is in breaking down perception barriers for the customer. Serving a coffee for $3.50 is a regular occurrence. This has been a norm for years, and the bulk of people see coffee as more of a commodity, barely worth the price paid. But when special lot Geisha’s are sold for $10-11 per cup, there is a change in perception in the mind of the customer based on price alone. These coffees are instantly framed as a whole new beverage to be appreciated at a higher level, the level we believe it should be appreciated at in the specialty coffee industry.
While I don’t believe this should be the only reason these coffees should be appreciated, I do value the impact price can have on perception. After all, specialty coffee needs as much help in engagement as possible. The onus then lies on baristas, roasters and producers to execute the expected experience and fulfil the quality expectation surrounding the label. This is where I believe the preference for these coffees can fall down.
What must be understood is that Geisha is not synonymous with quality. While the flavour potential of the variety is proven to be high, the reality is not all geisha coffees score more than 90 points, nor does it automatically lend itself to mind-blowing coffee experiences. Geisha has been criticised for being high in acidity, low in body, very citrusy and therefore not ideal for espresso. However, I argue this is due to inappropriate execution of process, roast or extraction variables in the chain and not the fault of the varietal.
As for the criticism for competitors using geisha for advantage in competition, I believe there is a far deeper level of understanding needed in 2018 to be successful with Geisha than ever before. Those that are successful with these coffees on the world stage are controlling variables that many coffee professionals wouldn’t consider and with this deeper understanding of the variables we are learning, those preconceived expectations around geisha don’t have to be true.
Although I do taste citrus, stone fruit and jasmine tea in the various geishas I have tried, I don’t see this as an expectation anymore. There is far more variation and value that we don’t regularly capture in this varietal. For example, at Finca Deborah in Panama, based on process alone I have cupped geishas that are driven by white grape, apple, silky body and florals, others that have been driven by yellow stone-fruit, jasmine and a fatty almost buttery texture. The coffee I used last year at WBC was built around pink and purple fruits, with different colours of florals. This shows the tactile and flavour expectations are only just starting to be discovered, and writing off a Geisha for being ‘predictable’ is doing a gross injustice to the varietal.
When a quality standard is met, these coffees can be mind-blowing and we have built in our cafes a market around these coffees. As soon as a bag is opened, these coffees sell out. Customers are engaging more, asking what the ‘premium’ or ‘gold label’ option is. Eight years ago, when I was a full-time barista in a cafe we would have to make a loss on these coffees in order to serve them, and customer perception was far from perfect.
However, since then we have learned more about how to work with these coffees to reach a high flavour potential more often. And all of this work has built a new market for these ‘specialty coffees’ every day in the cafe. What is exciting now, is the preservation of these coffees through freezing, lengthening their ideal tasting window, further improving quality and making them more sustainable to sell.
It is important to note that high quality geisha experiences are not the only incredible coffee experiences out there, nor does an incredible experience have to carry the price tag. However, the hype generated around Geisha has been the catalyst for many to improve other coffees to ‘compete’. There are new processes, new hybrid varietals, and new preparation techniques that are creating an even more varied range of special coffee experiences and while some of these improvements would have happened without Geisha, the incentive to find the next big thing is driving innovation in all areas of coffee.
In short, Geisha like any coffee can be delicious, or mediocre; the Geisha varietal has a high and diverse flavour potential and a high level of expected quality. I believe this carries great benefit to the progression of the coffee industry and for this reason Geisha shouldn’t fall victim to tall poppy syndrome anymore.
World Barista Championship Finalist 2017